Wordshore

Writing in the long form
November 9th, 2012

The fifteen hundred

There was an era in U.S. political life “that began with Ronald Reagan, where there was a conservative dominance powered by conservative voters and Southern whites,” said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “That era is over.


You know those news stories of religious cults, approaching a day of judgement where they are convinced that they will ascend to some form of heaven, leaving all the unbelievers behind? And they gather on the anointed day, often in some place in an American desert (Utah seems particularly appropriate). And right to the end, they believe that they are correct and everyone else is wrong.

And the time passes. And they don’t go to heaven, but just stand there, all upset, some in denial, many angry, some forever angry, some crying ‘lies’, some broken, some think they have been cheated, some blaming it on a lack of faith and action, some rearranging the date according to a hastily-justified reason, and some bewildered why the non-believers “just don’t get it”.

That was the core of the Republican party on election night. Cue Karl Rove in disbelieving mood. Cue the disbelieving party workers and Romney faithful in Boston. Cue the many viewers of Fox News, now spewing out angry disbelief on the comments sections of a thousand online news reports, and warning that the apocalypse is now upon us and the country is doomed and it’s all the fault of the non-believers, those strange unbelieving liberals who seem inexplicably angry with the prophecy of an imminent Conservative heaven.

Flag-waving "Patriots"

Their day, their moment, of judgement did not come. They weren’t transported to a land of low taxes, no medical cover, abortion or gay rights, ruled by a mean-sounding and uncomfortably white God. They’re still in the USA, a country still beset by significant problems – many of its own making – but one that is slowly, gradually becoming more racially and sexually accepting and socially liberal. More fair.

For them, the cult members, this is not pretty. And on the other, European side of the Atlantic, some rejoice and many are relieved while others, often intolerant extremists from the left who are boringly determined to be miserable about anything and everything Americana, whine about the result to the annoyance of more rational Americans. Maybe there is something in the horseshoe theory after all.

And for some of these more rational people watching from near or far away, it’s weird, this post-election feeling. A mixture of relief, fear, trepidation and exhaustion. The analysis of how Obama won – and why Romney lost, and lost an election many thought they could and should have won – is underway in a myriad of media, political centers, and television studios and smoke-filled back offices across America. The excuses from the losers – careful to point the blame at everyone except themselves – have begun. And so this experiment to change the Presidency by subtly and not-so-subtly brainwashing a significant proportion of the richest country in the history of mankind and throwing a billion dollars at an election, is over. As is a multi-level campaign featuring some of the most hateful and negative electioneering for a while, both widely known and not so widely known.

And, for a complex set of inter-related reasons that people are figuring out, it failed.

US Constitution

Good. And many good moments came out of the election. Possibly one of the most satisfying was the story of the damaging 47% video, shot at a private Romney event ($50,000 a pop to attend) where he dismissed that proportion of the population for allegedly never paying tax, living off handouts and always voting for Obama. And why was this video reveal particularly satisfying? Because the Republican Party, and Romney in particular, had spent many years castigating Jimmy Carter, the 1976 to 1980 US President. And the person who brought the video to the attention of the mass media and voters … was his grandson. A typically American twist of justice.

But the enduring struggle which maybe defines America, and what it means to be an American, goes on.

This ridiculously newly reborn country, where people alive today have watched a witness to Lincoln’s assassination describing it on TV. Where the last verified widow of a civil war veteran died just four years ago. And where the grandchildren of the tenth president, who took office in 1841, are still alive and farm. Heck, it’s less than four hundred years – which is nothing in European or Chinese historical terms – since the Mayflower arrived, had to winter out at sea and half the passengers died.

From here in the “old world”, post-colonial America sometimes seems almost too comically young, like a third grade schoolboy trying to buy beer, to call itself a country.

But it’s managed to pack a lot of turbulence, expansion, internal and external conflict, into those few hundred years. As well as, or possibly resulting in, staggering progress, the only country in history to go from the basic survival of newly arrived immigrants to safely putting its own citizens on the surface of another world within three and a half centuries. That’s pretty damned impressive. But is it the perpetual struggle between the religious and the humanist, the republican and the democrat, the farmer and the land, the homeowner and the tornado, the north and the south, the native and the settler, the free and the enslaved, the President and Congress, which defines America? If these struggles, endless and enduring, somehow ended, would this remove the character, identity which is America? I’m not sure.

But there’s one definite thing about America. It can be, often is, a peaceful and relaxed and above all a friendly place, even though it is always at conflict within itself. This perpetual conflict; maybe it’s the lack of post-colonial history, with only fifteen or so generations since the first Europeans walked off the boat into an already populated land, and stayed there. Maybe it’s because the underlying issues, feelings and prejudices which culminated in the civil war are not wholly resolved.

Or maybe it’s because the Declaration of Independence explicitly, optimistically and positively, tells the citizens of the country to go in the pursuit of happiness. Or maybe it’s because much of the Constitution, although written a mere ten generations ago, is open to interpretation, misinterpretation and re-interpretation. Or maybe it’s because within a single digit number of generations of that document, a period of almost impossible growth and advance, the country somehow managed to become the most powerful (in good and not so good ways) in history.

Even now, like unexpected volcanic eruptions off the coast of Iceland spewing out new lands, the United States of America is rapidly changing in terms of population, land mass, size. The lower 48 only became as such a century ago, with the 1912 additions of Arizona and New Mexico. In 1968, when I was born, the population was 200 million. In the 44 years since then, just a couple of generations and 11 presidential elections later, it’s increased to 315 million. Soon, another star may be added to the flag as Puerto Rico moves towards joining the union. (How cool is that? One nation, stretching from the eastern Caribbean to Alaska) Understanding America is difficult because of this constant, rapid, change. Even some of those born and living there, such as many of those Republicans from earlier in the week convinced to the end that America would vote “their man” in on a landslide, miss or don’t understand the rapid changes.

old glory. venice beach, ca. 2012.

And a lot can, and does, change in America during a lifetime. Even in just a few years. In 1,500 days, the country will have dealt (or not dealt) with the fiscal cliff, more hurricanes, economic turbulence, incidents, tragedies and triumphs of almost Shakespearian drama. And it will have voted and decided on (so long as Florida gets its act together) a new president-elect, waiting for inauguration while President Obama sees out the last few weeks of his two terms. Who that president-elect will be no-one knows, but the speculation across the media and the campaigning seems to be well underway.

And beyond 2016, who knows? Perhaps the American political dynasties of the last century will re-emerge; more likely than you may think. Hillary (Clinton) may run in 2016, win, and be re-elected in 2020. Though not yet a politician, her (and Bill’s) daughter, Chelsea Clinton, is racking up media and political experience. Don’t rule out another of Jimmy Carter’s grandchildren, Jason Carter, recently re-elected to the Georgia State Senate. There’s also plenty of Roosevelt’s around, a few of whom are active in politics. Then there’s George Bush. Yes, another one, except this one is the son of Jed, nephew of George Dubya, is half-Latino, speaks fluent Spanish, and is already nicknamed ’47 in relation to which US President he may become.

And finally, this election has also brought a new Kennedy into the House, Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, the grandson of Bobby. He looks like a Kennedy, really like his Grandfather, and talks like one, and is starting to campaign like one. Unlike his Grandfather, he can use social media to promote, and has a twitter account with (at the moment) a mere seven thousand followers. I have a good, hopeful, feeling that, as the next few presidential cycles roll by, we may start to hear a lot more about Joe at the level of US presidential candidate…

The drama and the change and the struggle that is America, continues.

I love the place, and its people, dearly. One day, I’ll be one.

May 28th, 2012

Storms over Lake Michigan

It was a few years ago, now. More recent than many of the other adventures I’d had in America, but still disappearing into the cognitively dusty corner of things done in the past. Some memories, most memories, fade, but some memories are sharp enough to endure.

I’d been dating H. It wasn’t good. The hot summer in the rust belt, and the previous baggage we’d both brought to the relationship, had stifled it pretty quickly. She was coming back to England with me. We both knew this was a mistake, but neither of us wanted to say. Eventually, we were both proved right.*

Her mom and her partner had a trailer. No, they weren’t the stereotypical rednecks – they also had a house – but this was a trailer in some kind of middle class holiday park, in northern Indiana. It was ridiculously big; and comfortable, with “all mod cons” and places to sleep, and a large TV on which reruns of Top Gear could be watched by Americans easily amused at the comedic value of British men. Back in my own country, I’ve lived in smaller apartments.

As I said, it wasn’t good between me and H. That’s in the past – the receeding past, thankfully – and it’s unlikely we’ll ever speak again, especially when I’ve published all of the memories that are emerging, some years in the future when it’s more appropriate. And speaking was something we weren’t good at doing anyway, even when we were together.

Aurora Over Lake Michigan

In the trailer park, I’d increasingly go off on my own to avoid talking. One evening I took the golf cart out, something I enjoyed doing on my own, less so with other people. It had cup holders, meant I didn’t have to exercise in any way, and therefore made me feel a little bit American.

The air was oppressive; hot and still that evening. The heat had been nudging 100 in the daytime, and the insects were feasting on my slowly cooking skin that week. Driving the golf cart gave a little relief; a slight and silent breeze.

I drove it to the entrance to the trailer park, on a few yards more, to the top of a rise. Not a big rise, but in Indiana, a rise is a rise. Feeling … something … I turned around.

To the northwest, the view swept over the border into Michigan. In the distance, far far into the distance, huge storm clouds, impossibly large thunder clouds, moved imperceptibly across the sky, like silent buffalo in great numbers, on the move. Lighting lit up random clouds, but no thunder rolled across Michigan and Indiana to where I sat in the golf cart, the storm was so distant.

I tried to work out where the clouds were, and realised that, with the distance, the storms were likely to be over Lake Michigan, moving out of Chicago, trundling towards Canada. But here I was, in Indiana, close to the border with Ohio, watching storms sweep across a lake so vast that you sail on it and soon lose sight of the shore from where you came. A lake larger than countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium or the Netherlands. A lake which I’d swam in several times, watched fireworks fall into, and pottered around on, in boats. To an Englishman, used to tiny lakes not much bigger than ponds, and a gap from his birth country to continental Europe much narrower than Lake Michigan, the scale of this unobstructed panorama woke me from my evening heat slumber. And woke me from the place I’d retreated to, inside myself, that summer.

Solitude

I watched the silent lightning and wondered; were there boats on the lake? Under the storm? Being battered by large waves, and worked desperately like Truman Burbank trying to keep the Santa Maria afloat? Ships heading for safe harbour, in Grand Haven, Muskegon, Benton or Evanston?

That was the America I was looking for. The big sky; the big country; liberty defined in a thousand ways, but an important one being that with wheels and cheap gasoline, you can drive in the same direction for hours, days, and still be in the same country. Where a quick trip to your favorite restaurant for dinner can be a hundred miles or more. And train journeys between major cities are sometimes measured, not in minutes or hours, but in days and nights. A landmass so big, many people go a lifetime and never see the edges.

Only a third of Americans have passports, I’d read in the paper. True or not, it suddenly seemed plausible; the place was so big, endless, rolling, why go elsewhere when there’s much still to see here? I’d only experienced this feeling of scale before in Scandinavia, the overwhelming size of the fjords of Norway, the coastline that seems unimaginably long, the hundreds of thousands of islands, and the endless roads through the snowy northern European landscape. Nowhere else, apart from here in America, had a landscape this epic.

I drove back to the trailer before the golf cart battery drained completely. No-one had noticed that I’d gone; symbolic, obviously, of the dying relationship that would unfortunately stagger on for another half year.

And that is my most vivid, persistent and positive memory of that relationship (for even out of the worst ones, some good things usually come). Ironically, an event in which I’d found a near-perfect moment, but in solitude. Watching lightning and storms, from an American state away, move slowly across an inland sea. And understanding a mixture of emotions of calmness, liberty and freedom that come with watching a natural display of this scale, this distance and this grandeur.

* Update: August 28th 2012

Having said that, things did work out well – eventually – several years down the line, though in odd ways involving social media, patience, mistakes and regret, cheese and other things. If I hadn’t been tweeting, blogging and whatever else that summer from Ohio and Indiana, they may not have. Guess social media has its upsides, after all.

February 25th, 2012

Rick Santorum is fascinating

At which point, British liberal friends say “Who?” and my American liberal friends say “OMG why John, why, we thought you were one of us?”

Because he’s a Conservative American politician and he’s doing between okay and well in the quest to become the Republican presidential candidate this year, despite having hardly any infrastructure or team or funding compared to Mitt Romney. And I’ve met and chatted with him. And, think I get why he’s doing well.

Also. I like going to meetings where people of a different political persuasion speak. “Know thy enemy to defeat him”, perhaps. Or perhaps it’s because an event where everyone agrees with everyone else gets plain boring. Challenge is good, brings debate. Agreement in a like-minded echo chamber brings … sleep?

I’m a European socialist and liberal in the Scandinavian sense – though with some libertarian leanings, especially on defense – who believes in equality. I agree with Rick on not tying a currency to the gold standard; but on just about every other political issue he’s spoken about, it’s disagreement time. Often extreme disagreement. His views are about as opposite to mine as it is possible to get. On contraception, the separation of church and state, taxation, federal medical care, on … just about everything, I can’t agree with him and probably never will, even if he softened his position.

But here’s the odd thing. There’s a part of me that perhaps oddly admires his political journey this last half year, and there’s also a situation where I’d vote for him. Before my liberal friends stop reading and collectively delete me from all social media “friend” or “follow” lists, hear me out.

I met Rick last August in Grinnell, Iowa. It was months before the state GOP caucus, and before the Ames Straw Poll, a somewhat poisoned chalice where the winner gets a brief moment of fame in the media, and then quickly burns out. Michelle Bachmann won that, then plummeted in the GOP polls and quit the race not that long afterwards.

At the time, Rick was on less than 1% in the polling. In the TV debates, he’d be the one right on the side, not getting any questions as the interviewer focused on whoever was the Republican flavor of the month / week / day. His campaign had pretty much no money. However, his style of campaigning involved going from small town to small town, speaking at every small hall and library around. He spent many days “on the ground”, and eventually went to every one of Iowa’s counties. And, unlike Bachmann who also visited every county, but in just a few days and with extremely brief stops in each, Rick took several hours out at each stop to give his speech and answer – in surprising detail and length – questions put to him.

Rick Santorum

He turned up at Grinnell (the only other Republican candidate who went there was Tim Pawlenty) and I wandered along to the event, expecting there to be a crowd of dozens, maybe a hundred or more people crammed into the room at the public library. Um, there wasn’t – I got there a little early and was the first one. I chatted to his organiser, an enthusiastic and pleasant Iowa student of politics. And a few other people, and Rick turned up. Shook his hand, chatted briefly and awkwardly, I think mostly about Iowa cuisine on which he’d become an expert of late. He picked up on my European-ess, and commented on it.

The room sort of filled a bit, but the attendees peaked at less than twenty, to be outnumbered by the media and Rick’s family at one point. Rick’s style of speaking was to give a long monologue, with no notes, on his campaign, his beliefs, on Obama, on the state of America, on how Europe had gone very wrong (he glanced over at me a few times while saying that; I smiled back) and how America should not go that way.

And his policies, which are now widely known, not just nationally across America, but internationally. I started, then stopped live-tweeting the event, as DMs from British followers were sceptical about whether these were honest tweets (yes) or made up. I’ve never heard rhetoric at an event like it. (Thinks) actually … not true. When living in the Outer Hebrides for half a decade, at funerals and other obligatory community services, the minister would sometimes veer off into fire and brimstone rhetoric. There’s not much as surreal as being at a funeral and the minister informing everyone that they will burn in hell.

And that’s not far off Rick’s message. Which is also that the best status for a woman is barefoot and pregnant, contraception is wrong, anything apart from a heterosexual relationship is wrong, Europeans are lazy which is why their economies are wrecked, Iran should be attacked, and that wealth inequality is a good and necessary thing.

But it was the reaction of the audience that was the most interesting. The older the member of the audience, the more vocal they spoke in favor of, and to, Rick. One lady who must have been 80, if not a lot older, had a mini-rant about the evils of “socialistic Obama policies”. Seniors nodded and muttered agreement when Rick argued for “Obamacare” to be repealed, as I sat there and thought “Hang on; aren’t you some of the main beneficiaries of medicare and medicaid? Especially you there, in the front row, in your federal funded electric wheelchair?”

Press

Rick spoke for over an hour. Then he took questions; any questions, and didn’t duck any. His minder / driver pointedly looked at his watch. Then it finished. One lady who’d been sitting at the back said to him:

“I don’t agree with what you said, but I appreciate you coming to our town and putting your case and beliefs forward.”

Her companion agreed with her. And that’s part of why Rick is popular, and picking up votes, with many people.

  1. He puts the effort in, and goes to the places which other candidates think are “not worth it”. Locals appreciate this.
  2. When he’s there, he doesn’t do a five minute script then gets back onto a plane, but talks and answers questions at length. The other candidates don’t, apart from Ron Paul sometimes.
  3. He’s vocally honest about what he believes in. To the extent that his campaign is unusual. Pick an issue; any issue. Do you honestly know how Mitt Romney will act on this issue if/when he becomes president? No. Mitt tailors his response to the audience and situation. Whereas Rick has probably come out with an unambiguous policy on the issue, even if it is one which most Americans will not agree with.

Those three things add up to the “Protestant Work Ethic” and basic honesty of opinion that appeals to a lot of Americans. Especially in places such as rural Iowa. That’s from Republican voters I’ve chatted to there, and it’s obviously getting him a lot of votes.

It’s also his honesty of opinion – combined with that opinion being extreme on issues such as sexuality – that has made Rick such a controversial person. If you don’t know why, Google Santorum. When you’ve recoiled from this, find out why it came about. This is also why many in the US media are enjoying this, seeing how frequently they can use the phrase “Santorum surge” to summarise his current polling popularity, as well as fronting other innuendo such as this article title. And we thought the Brits were best at smut?

But seriously, it is a bizarre situation, when a candidate says things hostile to a woman’s ability to choose contraception, or even what to do in the most extreme of situations…

…but many women still want to vote for him to be president. This clip from the Daily Show is a good analysis of his frank approach.

So I admire him for his (bizarrely politically suicidal) honesty and his work rate. But at the same time, I am appalled by his policies. After his event, I took a cookie offered by his daughter and went back into the library proper to borrow his book It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. I managed to get a quarter of the way through it before realising … I just could not read any more. Too much, in a bad way; if Rick became president, it would be bad for America, especially for anyone who wasn’t a rich white male, and bad the world. I wouldn’t like to be a woman, relying on health care and in a low paid job, in Rick’s America.

So there’s a situation where I’d vote for Rick?! I do not believe he will be the Republican candidate for several reasons. The main one being that he is unelectable in the presidential election proper, as independents and lots of other demographics will vote to keep him out. The GOP hierarchy know that Mitt Romney is far more electable against Obama, and will ensure that Mitt is the candidate, no matter what. I’m expecting Mitt to take Michigan and Arizona – the latter by a wide margin – this tuesday, and most of the primaries on Super Tuesday. It’s inconceivable that the wider Republican Party and Conservative coalition will let any other situation occur.

Also, because of his strategy Rick has done well in the caucuses but badly in the primaries. Unfortunately, the contorted nature of the process means that those caucus wins will not translate to many conference delegates (most may go to Ron Paul) and it’s quite possible that come the Republican Party convention in August, Santorum will have “won” many more states than Paul but have fewer delegates (think of them as bargaining chips). There are other reasons, but I’m sticking with my prediction that Mitt Romney will be the Republican Party candidate, and will win the presidency in November 2012. Even though I don’t want that to happen.

So if I was an eligible voter, and if I was in a state with a caucus or an open primary (where you don’t have to be a registered Republican to vote), I would vote for Rick. Not because I want him to win. But because every vote against Romney, and especially every state he loses, destabilizes him a little bit. And Romney, and the supporting SuperPACs, have to pour more of their finite money into the Republican race, leaving them with less to fight Obama in the autumn. Unfair tactics? No. It’s legal, and both parties push the legality of what they can do as far as they can.

But to reassure my liberal chums, if any have not given up in disgust and are still reading this, come the presidential election proper, no matter what there would only be one vote for me (if I could vote):

Obama 2012 Rally—New York City, June 23rd, 2011

I still believe in hope. And a Barack Obama, used to the mechanisms of presidency and free from compromising to get re-elected, could have a much more progressive second term than his first.

If he wins in November…

October 24th, 2011

Where liberty is, there is my country

You know an image affects you when you keep returning to look at it “one more time”. And wandering around on Flickr, there’s one image I keep returning to. The photographer has given permission for it to be used here; you can find it yourself on Flickr, or click on the image for the larger version:

Chatting to the photographer, and looking around her Flickr pictures, reveals some connections. Maryann is a school librarian in the midwest, currently “teaching my students how to find material in the library and how to use the online catalog”. The picture was taken in Iowa, while she was cycling RAGBRAI. That’s an annual cross-state biking event that stops overnight in Grinnell, which (from my non-cyclist, resident, perspective) results in lots of temporary new food options.

The picture is pure Iowa, a US state to be enjoyed for the wide open prairie outside. It’s filled, as Iowa seems to be, with sky and corn – tall corn. A barn emerges from the corn, the symbol of western European-immigrant rural settlement, work, and living off the land. Outside the barn, the unmistakably potent identity marker of the country, the stars and stripes, an emblem I’ve been obsessed with since touching the earliest surviving incarnation of it in the village church before being old enough to speak. Christened John after JFK, and with a thousand cultural references and influences permeating every aspect of living for the last 43 years, America feels like its run through my veins since birth. A complex picture of why I “feel” more American than British/English is starting to come clear.

Benjamin Franklin was one of the cooler founding fathers. He advocated tolerance for all churches, freed “his” slaves and became an abolitionist. He was interested in, well, just about everything, but specialised in science, diplomacy and nationality. Benjamin formed the first public lending library in America through his book donation, and was the first US postmaster general, helping to form the first national communication infrastructure. Benjamin was pretty much the Tim Berners-Lee of the age, 200 years before the Internet.

The phrase “Where liberty is, there is my country” is interesting, liberty being an ever-debated principle that underpins the USA, from Lincoln’s “Conceived in liberty” Gettysburg address and before, through to the current 2012 presidential race. The concept weaves its way through many of the books I’ve been reading these last three year on American politics, society, history and rural culture, as well as what’s being said when listening to American politicians, Democrat and Republican, speak. It’s a strange country, when the European immigrant history and national formation is so very recent but is still so argued over. A quarter of that time has been spent travelling through, and living, there; three years ago today was spent on an Amtrak train heading up the west coast towards Seattle, as part of a 7,000 loop around the western half of the country.

When Becky and myself buy our first place together (hopefully something like this), this picture, large and framed, will be going on the wall. It’s good to see, a reminder of the personally important things in life. (Looks again) yeah; time to do some more writing and work my way back to the place that feels like home…

August 25th, 2011

Pastries of the night

There’s a bakery and shop here in Grinnell which, as bakeries do, bakes stuff in the night and the early hours. Breads, cookies, cakes, pastries and all manner of things. It’s small, but rather good, and we’ve bought stuff from there several times before.

Sunset

This bakery is a little different in that if you go round the back from 2am onwards, and the owner is in there baking, he’ll sell you stuff that’s hot, or warm, out of the oven. Students (old enough to drink) especially take advantage of this, as the bakery is on the way back to campus from several of the bars. So I gave it a try tonight.

Grinnell isn’t the busiest of places in the middle of the day. In fact there’s only one stretch of one road where you sometimes have to wait to cross, and that during the rush hour. Downtown, which is a thriving four block business area, is quiet in the daytime – and deserted at night:

Downtown, 2am

2am rolled around, and the shop front of the bakery was unlit. Went round the back and bingo; the baker was happily rolling dough. He remembered me from six weeks ago; he was the first Grinnell person I’d met and spoken to, which was cool. And he had various racks of pastries and cakes ready, some of them warm and therefore recently out of the oven.

Purchases were made, and pleasantries exchanged. And if Becky looks inside the kitchen breadbin before she leaves for work in four and a half hours, she’ll find her present of:

Fresh out the bakery

:)

August 25th, 2011

American Gothic reimagined

American Gothic 2011 Unrated Edition

And as the summer draws to a close, we continued our trips around the awesome state of Iowa. First impressions were of several thousand square miles of corn and precious little else, but perceptions are deceptive. There’s a lot in Iowa, if you look for it; more on this in future posts.

The best thing we’ve done here so far? Visited the house that Grant Wood painted in the iconic, and much parodied, American Gothic. The original painting…

American Gothic

…hangs in Chicago, but the actual house is in the town of Eldon, in the south of Iowa. Eldon has … not very much else, publicising the house in some way or other in two signs out of three around the place. From the main roads, follow the signs down various back streets, until the house comes into view.

Things we noticed when we turned up:

  • The house is surprisingly small
  • The visitor center nearby is several time larger
  • It doesn’t get visited much; just a few other people there, on a Saturday, when we were.

House

The house itself is lived in, rented out to someone who occasionally makes and sells pies. No tours inside, and signs to respect privacy, but you can get pretty close up to it.

The visitor center has a heap of exhibitions and a lot of contextual history about the house. But, best of all, they have friendly staff and a bunch of clothes you can put on to dress up like the folk (actually the painters dentist and sister) in the picture. Right down to the pitchfork, and the rather strong 1930s glasses.

So it was on with the clothes, and outside with our respective cameras.

Dressing up

And here’s the end result. The Systems Librarian of Grinnell College on the left, and me with the pitchfork, looking dour. Or hardworking. Or paternal. Or stern. Or, keeping a fixed frown as people of that era did, being dissuaded from smiling for primitive photography due to the long exposure time.

American Gothic

The visitor center, and having your picture taken, are free; donations welcome. More on their website. Eldon itself is 80 miles away from Grinnell. Enjoy.

February 25th, 2011

Blue Highways

My favourite non-fiction book. And the answer to the “What one possession would you take with you if your house was on fire?” question. The author is also the person, if I could pick one, I want to be.

I’ve been fascinated, obsessed, delirious, about America since I could speak and read, possibly before. My earliest memory was of watching man – an American – land on the moon, being too young to understand the excitement of a packed room of people watching a tiny, flickering television.

rural road

Every influence, from Coca Cola bottles to West Side Story, the speeches of JFK (who my parents named me after), the Stars and Stripes and the Star Spangled Banner, the movies of the Coen brothers and the journalism of the Washington Post, Seinfeld and The Wire, the optimism and a thousand influences in between, flow through me. That growing realisation that I’m an American, born in the wrong country.

I’ve had a few adventures, briefly, in America. But the adventure, the journey – and it is always the journey, not the destination – that William Least Heat-Moon describes in this book, is over four hundred pages of often transcendental observation and reflection, of America and the author, the writer, within America.

In Blue Highways, William found his life changing drastically in his late thirties, his ties gone, and took the opportunity to make a move, setting off with the bare minimum and copies of Leaves of Grass and Black Elk Speaks. He stuck to the back roads, the two lane tracks, and the small towns, people who’d never been interviewed, traveled, seen beyond their horizon but were content. Several thousand miles of traveling, and he repeatedly finds places and people he didn’t know existed; but perhaps more importantly he “learnt what he didn’t know he needed to know”.

Life as a back road in Iowa

The journey. It’s always about the journey. And there’s possibly no better place, physically and spiritually, to undertake the journey than America.

It’s a beautiful book I’ve read many times, and it smells and feels like a well-read and loved book.

Lines from a Navajo wind chant which close the book, and reminds of why we write:

Then he was told:
Remember what you have seen,
because everything forgotten,
returns to the circling winds.

January 20th, 2011

Believing in America

Is it possible to watch something online and be simultaneously very happy and very jealous? Yes; today I was. Watching some of this webcam footage live, which the White House has put in the public domain.

White House

Watching the news it can be difficult at times to believe in the USA as a civilised and progressive country and society. The politics, as portrayed through television news, appear entrenched, angry, volatile and dangerous. Incidents, such as the recent shootings in Tucson, distress. News reports fill with individuals and crowds, commentators, angry, seemingly on the edge of violence. And it makes you think; here in the UK, especially in the current political and economic climate, there is a lot of anger and bitterness; see, for example, the recent protests over student debt.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

But, we don’t violently attack politicians, or their families, or other high profile people here. We just … don’t. “That kind of thing happens in America, not here in Britain” is the standard view, especially of the older generations. So a viewer of the traditional news and media could reasonably assume that the USA is a country ‘divided’, with millions of people hating a group of millions of other people. Well, maybe not. TV news show the incidents, the controversy, the marches, and angry people angrily waving signs of varying degrees of literacy. Is it really like that, nationally? If you make a large and random selection of the public meet one of the most high profile people on one ‘side’ of the political ‘divide’, how many would get angry, or not be civil, or would generally be unpleasant.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

How about … none?

Today was the second anniversary of the inauguration of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States. As an unexpected surprise, Michelle Obama and their dog, Bo, waited in the Blue Room of the White House to meet members of the public who were doing the tour. Cue lots of surprised Americans being suddenly met by Michelle saying “Hi!” or “Welcome to my house!”

Even better, this was all piped live through the White House website, so people online could watch what happened and how members of the public reacted. The White House set this up neatly, with one webcam focused on Obama and Bo, and the other on the entrance to the room at the point where visitors realise they’re about to meet the first lady.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

Considering that a significant portion of the population vote, or voted Republican, and with the Tea Party, the libertarians, and the aforementioned angry and divisive nature of the politics that we see, frequently, on the news, it was a relief and good to see that no-one refused to shake hands with Michelle (apart from the kid who was terrified of dogs and ran away from Bo), or was rude or dismissive to her.

And this wasn’t staged; watching this for quite a while, it was good to see people repeatedly shocked, then surprised, then delighted that they got to meet the first lady. How awesome is that?

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

And Michelle was actually … hugging … random members of the public(!) Seriously. Male, female, black, white, old and young. Physical contact? Here in Britain, politicians shake hands politely, kiss babies for the media on campaign trails, and that’s about it; it’s all very … restrained and repressed. You don’t … hug politicians and they don’t hug you. Royalty are even more distant; lightly put your hand on the Queen, even if you are prime minister of another country, and face the wrath of the media. All part, perhaps, of the class structure and the doffing of one’s hat or cap to your social and economic superiors?

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

But there, in America, the wife of the president of the United States is hugging random members of public. Some of whom appear to be in mild shock at this, while others, especially the schoolkids, jump up and down a bit. They will remember that day for the rest of their lives, when a visit to the White House turned into something unexpectedly else.

Greeting Michelle Obama and Bo

And watching Michelle meet hundreds of Americans (and tourists from other countries) today, all of whom were polite and friendly, is one of the many reasons I still believe in America. Despite what the traditional media try and repeatedly tell me otherwise. Most, nearly all, Americans – and I have met thousands over the decades, so this isn’t a random guess – when you meet them, are decent, friendly people who just want to get on in life.

And that, alone, is reason enough to believe in America.

August 12th, 2009

Orland Public Library, Indiana

Library Open

If you love books and libraries, and you are travelling around America, this is the library to visit; the Joyce library, in Orland, up in the north east corner of Indiana. I’d heard recommendations about it from other librarians in the county, especially about the old library upstairs, so it became a bit of a must-see.

It didn’t disappoint.

The library is open80

The library is open for three days a week, four hours on each day. Called the Joyce Public Library, it’s named after the person who created it, back in 1903. Orland itself has a population of just 400. So it isn’t a big place, though it has pretty houses, and a famous diner (Chubby’s) where the portion sizes are threatening and cost a pittance is next door to the library.

Walking inside, you find yourself in a single, long room with (very) neatly arranged cases, shelves and books. There isn’t a single thing out of place and, probably, not a spec of dust in the place. I’ve never seen a library kept in this pristine and neat condition. Ever. Near the main desk, where patrons discussed the plots of the books they were returning, was the catalogue. Not PC-based, but a traditional card catalogue; a rummage through showed every card typed out in the same careful style. Entries for of my favourite books in the library came up in it (probably quicker than by using a PC-based catalogue, if one had been available).

Main collection

I got chatting to the staff who, like all the other librarians encountered in rural Indiana, were friendly and keen to speak to folk (especially folk with English accents). They gave a history of the place and offered what I was hoping for, a tour of the rooms not normally open to the public.

And so, the upstairs were a complete revelation. Larger than the downstairs, the restoration and materials spread across three rooms. The first one was the old library proper, complete with bell, the original card cataloguing case, and numerous books.

Old library room

The historical books can be browsed (but not taken out of the library) …

Books in the old library

… while the other rooms contained materials included a newspaper collection dating back to the 1880s, school desks and textbooks, cuttings, pictures of the town baseball team through the last century, team clothing and tables and cupboards filled with other historical ephemera. I particularly liked the newspaper front cover detailing the massacre at Custer’s last stand, with sub-headings of “What will Congress do about it?” and “Shall this be the beginning of the end?”.

It would have taken a good few days to have had a good look through what was there, and it was obvious that there was a substantial operation underway to preserve and archive the materials. It turned out that most was donated by local families, when clearing out rooms and attics and coming across items collected, or just forgotten about, by ancestors.

Historical archiving room

Wandering downstairs, the restored pictures around the top of the walls in the public library were distracting. These were the annual school photo displays, restored and displayed in chronological order. Going back well over a century, these were fun to move along, seeing how fashion (as photographed) changed, from stern, well-buttoned turn of the (1900) century outfits …

Class of 1907

… to the formality of the WW2 years, and the more adventurous hairstyles of the 1960s. If you watch Mad Men, then the dress and personal grooming sense of the 1960s pictures are very recognisable.

Class of 1963

There was more to look at in the public library. 26 alphabet tote bags, each containing fun stuff for young kids associated with a single letter of the alphabet. The surprisingly varied public book collection itself. The wedding dress display in the front window.

So how is this, one of the nicest library and library museums I’ve ever seen, funded? Especially their library museum, which has a collection far in excess of my home town (which is several hundred years older and has a population 60 times the size). It looks like a library. It functions like a library. But it isn’t integrated into the state or county network of official public libraries because (?) there are no qualified librarians who work here. That also means it doesn’t appear on some lists of public libraries in Indiana or the USA.

Okay; get this. The annual budget of this library – including the historical rooms upstairs? $16,000. Or, in UK money, £9,400. Per year. Some of this comes from town funding; a small amount also came from out of township membership fees of $10 a year (“We could charge more, but we don’t want to.”). Some monies come from catering and meals cooked by the library staff, such as the annual firemens dinner (attendance of roughly 100 in a town of 400 residents); the staff apply for any relevant grants which they hear about.

Considering it’s a building with several floors, taxes, electricity, upkeep and maintenance, there’s a substantial historical archiving initiative going on upstairs, and that they introduce 20 or so new books to the collection every month, that’s peanuts.

Historical collection

How is this possible? Volunteer effort. It’s staffed by a handful of – unpaid – local residents, who also do the archiving and maintenance. The library board, of five people, meet once a year. And that’s about it in terms of bureacracy. People in the town come in and help with things, or donate materials or hardware. “Why do you do this?” I asked the senior who gave the guided tour, and had done much of the historical archiving. “Because we can, and if we didn’t then this would be lost, and the town wouldn’t have a library.” “Do you get many out of town visitors here, or to the upstairs library?” “Not really.” This didn’t seem to bother her; she wasn’t doing it for funding, or for public glory. She just did it for quiet personal satisfaction, and because she lived in Orland.

I dropped off 10 dollars. Inexplicably, the library doesn’t have a donation jar, the staff didn’t charge for the tour, and they seemed surprised and grateful for the donation. Unlike a few other libraries visited over the years, there was no overt revenue-generating operation; exactly the opposite. Orland public library isn’t a financial model that would work in most places. Without the considerable volunteer effort of a few locals, the support of the whole town, and the canny accumulation and use of funding, the library would become unviable immediately.

One last thing. On leaving, turning the corner outside reveals a mural on the side of the library building:

Mural

Considering the size of the archiving operation, how well materials have been ordered and preserved, the miniscule budget and the number of people working there – with the support of the town – Orland public library seems a more heroic, worthy, complete and (above all) personal effort than more well-known libraries and museums such as the Bodleian, National Library of Scotland or the Smithsonian.

So that was my trip to Orland public library; a deeply satisfying way of ending a summer in the heat of midwest America.

August 11th, 2009

Conversations with librarians

Three months wandering around the Midwest of the USA come to an end in a few days, when I get on the plane from Chicago to London. It turned into a bit of a road trip in the end; during which I’ve met some fun people, expanded the social circle and contact network, eaten a spectacular range of finest American cuisine, explored cities e.g. Detroit, Ann Arbour and Toledo, wandered into Canada, swam in two of the Great Lakes (Michigan and Ontario), watched several baseball matches, seen numerous firework displays, got up close and personal with buffalo, travelled by road, plane, Greyhound bus and Amtrak train, started geocaching, and explored parts of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. And also got some work done.

All of that was enjoyable, every last baseball observed and calorie consumed. But the most fun was visiting rural libraries in Indiana and speaking to the librarians who direct, run and staff them.

Fremont was my first experience of a rural Indiana library. It wasn’t what I was expecting. The building was large, roomy, cool and quiet. Furniture was tasteful; electricity sockets were everywhere; the wifi was free. There were areas to do historical research and to generally sit down in a group. As with every library I visited, at least one large American flag would be prominent in the building:

Comfy seating area

The computer labs would be the envy of public libraries in Britain (as well as possibly a few schools and university departments). Several banks of – new – PCs were complimented by several areas of – new – Macs with large screens:

Mac Lab

I chatted with a male librarian, who seemed pretty friendly. He, and I quote, “real enjoyed” working there and enjoyed helping out the patrons who came in.

Topeka was a small town – basically a crossroads with a few building either side – deep in Amish country. Their library building was opened in March 2009, and like many of the newer buildings was well lit, cool, and roomy:

Topeka library

The friendly librarian chatted for a while. She ran various teen programs, such as movie nights, which helped bring kids in from a wide area around. It helped that the building had a community room (free for non-profits, a small fee for businesses) which was kitted out with various media kit, plus a piano. Topeka libraries serves a rural area of some 25 mile radius – and rural it is, with the town surrounded by corn fields and much of the traffic being Amish buggies. The Amish made up a sizeable proportion of the patrons of the library, and while we were chatting several came in and borrowed books.

Angola public library was also in a new building. Actually, the old library – restored and used as the reference centre – was also inside the new building, which also included the fountain that also used to be outside. It’s not everyday you see a fountain inside a public library, but there you go:

Angola library

One of the library staff was happy to give a guided tour, then introduced the director. She explained the (horribly complicated) way in which libraries in Indiana were funded – basically a combination of property taxes, donations, fines, and fees for out of township residents. I think – the system of funding, and who was eligible to use the library, seems complicated and differs between libraries, even in the same county. For example, a town and a township are not the same thing. From what I understand, villages, towns and cities are inside townships, which are inside counties, which are inside states. And each level has its own criteria (stop press: just been told that some can be incorporated – which adds another complication).

Angola library itself received most of its funding from local property taxes, as well as some clever auctions of items and services donated by local businesses:

Angola library

The collection itself was interesting, with ‘weeding’ being a counter-productive aspect. The Amish bishop instructed the children not to read any books published after 1975 or 1980, which meant that Amish children finding a book on the mobile library would first of all flip to the date of publication before checking out the book further.

LaGrange public library was inside a cramped building. It looked nice from the outside, near the centre of the town and opposite an Amish farmers market where I bought some jam and sausage bread. Inside, it became very obvious that this is a library that needed to move to a larger building. Desperately. Signs on the road coming into town indicated (as confirmed by a librarian) that the move/upgrade was the focus of some local controversy:

LaGrange library controversy

Inside, the staff were struggling moving around a building clearly not designed for either a growing collection of the current size, or people unable to use the many flights of stairs. Like the old library in Angola, the one in LaGrange was a Carnegie Library, one of many funded partially by a Scots philanthropist during the development of many rural American towns.

Stacks

Despite the small size of the rooms in the building, like the other public libraries on this tour there were several newish PCs for free Internet access, plus a whole pile of community information. LaGrange had several churches offering community meals, as advertised through the library and other places in the town. On the bannister of the stairs in the library porch was a stream of cards where residents could advertise, and request, services and goods from others. Sort of like a localised Saturday Swap Shop.

Community swap

All these public libraries were interesting and staffed by friendly, helpful people. But my favourite public library – not just in this corner of rural Indiana, but of the hundreds I’ve visited across America and Europe – deserves a posting to itself. Next.